The Arabic ChristianLiterature
By Dr. George Khoury
Dr. Khoury Georges speaks about the contribution of the Melkites,the Jacobites, the Nestorians, The Copts and the Maronites to the ArabChristian Heritage.
The Melkites | The Jacobites| The Nestorians | The Copts | TheMaronites |
Arabic at the time of the Abbasids had become a language of full maturity,unchallenged mistress in the school, the mosque, and in the offices ofthe administration. It prevailed in all parts of the Muslim world, notonly as an ornament of great value for the pen, but also as a generousnurse of thought. The Iranians themselves, who later succeeded in givinglife to their nationalism and in reviving anew a literature in Persianlanguage, were unable to garble the Arabic language as a language of scienceand religion. They also had to keep its strong mark on their own vocabularyand on the alphabet. If Baghdad was an aging city hardly a century afterits founding, it was nonetheless under the first Abassids the symbol ofa new civilization and the home of the shining Arabic language which hadbecome a language of thought and culture.
The irruption of foreign nations reached its height during the Abassidcaliphate, with their cultural contributions and their specific gifts tothe social and intellectual life of Arab Islamism. It also provoked a greateffervescence of thought and an intense literary activity which pouredinto the Arabic language and brought about a development of prose. Thevocabulary waxed richer thanks to new terms it borrowed from other cultures;the syntax became suppler, and the style clearer. Literary genres wereeither recovered or created. Ideas, new doctrines and research requiredmore suitable expression.
Thanks to some talented witers of prose there was now a neat prose,eloquent in its simplicity, without affectation or mannerism, fluent andclear, without neither rhymes nor embellishment. From this period of Arabhistory we have works in theology, law, ethics, Qu'ranic exegesis, traditions,philology (i.e., grammar, lexicography, prosody), philosophy, history,geography, the exact sciences, and mystical theology.Topof page
2- The Melkites
Melkites means those Christians who adhered to the Calcidonian faith,451AD,which was supported and defended by the Bysantine Basileus in ConstantinopleConnecting Greek with Syriac as a language of life and as expression ofthought, Arabic became first and little by little the prevailing form andlater the only form of Christian literature in the Melkite community, whereasthe Syriac and Coptic communities kept for a longer time their respectivelanguages. One must distinguish, however, between two literary forms ofArabic in the Melkite literature of this period. This diversity is to beexplained by the destination of Melkite literature.
One form uses the literary language--a language in no way inferior,from the point of view of stylistic purity, to that used by the Muslims.This is used in translating the Greek heritage of philosophy and science,in the chancellories, in the writing of history, and in the Islamo-Christiancontroversies. This literary Arabic is addressed to a Christian as wellas a Muslim elite. It is not contaminated with vernacular dialect nor withforeign terms, except when these are required by technical needs or bythe lively evolution of the language, especially in the field of philosophy.
A second, different Arabic is addressed to the people; this is the languageused in hagiography, ascetic literature, and liturgy. Its users also enjoyeda bilingual education, Greek and Arabic, sometimes trilingual, Greek, Arabic,and Syriac, but its destination was the people and the monasteries. Itsform of expression often deviated from grammatical norms and from syntaxin order to borrow the suppler and livelier forms of the local dialect.Thus it frequently used foreign terms, mostly from Greek and Syriac. Itwas a language half-way between classical and local dialect. Here are someof the most famous and representative Christian Arab writers and thinkerswho issued from the different Christian communities in Syro-Mesopotamiaand Egypt, and who wrote during the Abassid era. This is by no means anexhaustive list.
a) Qusta Ibn Luqa (835-912)
Qusta Ibn Luqa was a Melkite from Baalbeck. He was an eminent translatorand a theoretician of medicine. In addition, he was mathematician, physician,philosopher, apologist, and musician. Of him Ibn an-Nadim says: "Heis an excellent translator; he knew well Greek, Syriac, and Arabic; hetranslated texts and corrected many translations. Many are his medicalwritings." (see Ibn an-Nadim, Fihrist, ed. Fugel, p. 234.) Qusta waswith Hunain Ibn Ishaq the author who best served Greek culture in the Arabcivilization.
b) Al-Bitriq (8th century)
Al-Bitriq lived during the caliphate of al-Mansur (754-775), who commissionedhim to translate numerous ancient medical works. He translated Galian'sSimplicia under the name of al-adwiat al-mufrada; the De Prohibenda Sepulturaand the De Cura Icteri of the pseudo-Galian under the name of Maqala fil-yaraqan. He also works attributed to Hippocrates: De Alimento, Kitabal-gida': De Septimanis, Kitab al-asabi, and he translated the Quadripartusof Ptolemeus, Kitab al-arabi'a. There was also Sa'id ibn al-Bitriq, Patriarchof Alexandria from 933 to 940 and whose works put him on equal footingwith Qusta ibn Luqa. In the field of medicine he wrote Kitab fi t-tibb(lost),in history, Kitab at-tarih al-magmu' ala t-tahqiq wa t-tasdiq, more commonlyknown under the name, Nazam al-gawahar. As apologist, he wrote in defenseof Christianity, Kitab al-gadal baina l-muhalef wa n-nasrani.Topof page
3- The Jacobites
Habib Abu Ra'itah Al-Takriti (early 9th century) is a contemporary anda theological opponent of Theodore Abu Qurrah, Bishop of Harran. He isthe author of four important theological treatise. 1. A letter on the Trinityaddressed to a Muslim and in which he attempts to explain the mystery ofthe Trinity with the help of philosophical concepts of substance, hypostasisand essential attributes, such as life, knowledge, and wisdom, and withnatural analogies, such as light, sun, man. He also quotes the Bible andthe Qur'an. 2. A letter on the Incarnation in which he tries to explainthe mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 3. Demonstrationof the truth of the Christian religion and of the doctrine of the Trinity.4. Proof of the truth of the Christian religion (however, this treatisemay be inauthentic). There were also Musa al-Hagari (known as Moses BarKepha, died 903), and Al-Harith ibn Sinbat from Harran who were great biblicaltranslators. But the most prestigious among them was Yahya ibn Adi (d.974): philosopher, polemist, and theolgian. His literary corpus comprises40 philosophical treatises, several treatises of apologetics, and his refutationof al-Kindi's refutation of the Christians. He was also a skilled translatorof Plato and Aristotle. Issa ibn Zurah (Baghad, 1008), in addition to beingan apologist and theologian, was also physician, philosopher, and scientist.Yahya ibn Garir from Takrit was physician, astronomer, philosopher, andtheologian. His compendium in theology is call Kitab al-murshid.Topof page
4- The Nestorians
Because of their number and importance in Mesopotamia, the Nestorianscontributed more than any other Christian community to the Christian Arabliterary heritage. Their activity comprises all the literary genres. Inthe first place stands out the Catholicos Timothy 1 (728-823). He was theprotagonist and author of an interesting Muhawarah (debate) with the caliphal-Mahdi (775-785). Next to him stands Abu Nuh Ibn Al-Salt Al-Ambari, translatorof Greek works and author of Tafnid al Qur'an (Refutation of the Qur'an),Maqalat fi al-tawhid and Maqalat fi al-tatlit (Essaya on God's Unity andTrinity). Ammar al-Basri (1st half of the 9th century) was a contemporaryof the Melkite Abu Qurrah and the Jacobite Abu Ra'itah al-Takriti, andof the Nestorian Timothy 1. Al-Basri wrote two apologetics: Book of theDemonstration and the Book of Questions and Answers. Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (808-837)was a famous physician, philosopher, and translator of Greek works underseveral caliphs. He is the author of a Letter to Yahya ibn al-Munaggim.Yahya ibn al-Munaggim was a Muslim who invited Hunayn to convert to Islam.He also wrote a Letter on how to attain to the True Religion in which heshows that Christianity corresponds to the criteria of the true religion.His son Ishaq continued in his father's footsteps as translator and writer.From him we have Maqalah fi al-tawhid (Essay on Unity). There was alsoAbd al-Masih al-Kindi(end of 9th or 10th century) known for his Letterof Abd al-Masih to Abdallah al-Hashimi which became a classic in the annalsof the Islamo-Christian polemics. There were also the members of the Bahtishu'family who, in addition to their medical profession, produced during threecenturies an abundant philosophical and theological literature. Elias ofNisibis (Metropolitan of Nisibis (d. ca. 1049), known also as Elias barSenaya, wrote as a dogmatic theologian two significant theological treatises:Letter on the Unity of the Creator and the Trinity of Persons and Letteron the Creation of the World. As apologist he wrote The Justification ofFaith and Treatise on the Happiness of the Other World. He also bequeathedthe report of Seven Sessions with the vizir al-Magribi. In the field ofexegesis he wrote a Letter on the Difficulties of the Gospel. Another importantfigure in the first half of the 11th century is Abdallah ibn al-Tayyib,physician, commentator of the Greek classics, philosopher and a prolificChristian writer. He wrote several treatises in systematic theology, oneon moral theology and one on law. As biblical commentator he wrote morecommentaries than any other Christian writer.Top of page
5- The Copts
The Copts, who were of the Monophysite faith, adhered to their own languagelonger, and were almost one century later than the other Christian communitiesin expressing themselves in Arabic. Their contribution to the Arab Christianliterature began with a great figure: Bishop of Asmunayn (Upper Egypt)Severus Ibn Al-Muqaffa (d. ca. 987). In theology, he wrote three importantworks: Book of the Exposition, Order of the Priesthood, and Precious Pearl.In apologetics he wrote: Book of the Councils and Brief Explanation ofthe Faith. He is best known though for his monumental History of the PatriarchsfAlexandria which was continued and completed in the 11th century by Michael,bishop of Tinnis and by Mawhub Ibn Mansur, deacon of Alexandria. In the12th centiry the Patriarch Christodule (d. 1077), Cyril Second (d. 1092),and Yunus Ibn Abdalah wrote abundantly in the field of legal and liturgicalliterature. In the 13th century there was Simon Ibn Kalil (d. 1206), authorof a treatise On the Unity of the Creator and of the Trinity. He also wrotea Commentary on the Gospel of St. Mathew and an Introduction to the Psalms.In ascetic theology he left us a beautifully written work, Garden of theHermit and the Consolation of the Solitary. The 13th century was also calledthe century of "Awlad Al-Assal", Al-Safi, Al-Assad, and Al-Mu'taman,who distinguished themselves in this golden century witha rich literaryproduction. Al-Safi was a great treanslator and author of many works, amongthem: Al-Sahahih fi gawab al-nassa'ih (The Correct Answers), and Al-Kitabal-awsat (The Middle Book). Al Mu'taman was a philosopher, theologian,exegete, a homeltic and liturgical writer.Top of page
6- The Maronites
The Maronite community kept longer than the other Christian communitiesto the Syriac language and literature. However, two Maronite names standout during the classical period of Arab patrology. The first is Thomas,bishop of Kafartab, who composed in the 11th century a theological workThe Book of Treatises. The other name is Bishop David who in the 11th centurytranslated from Syriac to Arabic Kitab al-Huda (The Book of Guidance).It is a collection of canons and laws, of liturgical rules and short theologicaltreatise dealing with trinitarian and christological problems. Topof page